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One third of dioceses respond to Bishops' communiqué study document

Responses sent to House of Bishops prior to New Orleans meeting

[Episcopal News Service] Roughly a third of the Episcopal Church's dioceses and have formally responded to reflection questions contained in a study document aimed at helping the House of Bishops respond to the requests made to them by the Primates of the Anglican Communion.

The bishops will have copies of those responses, ranging in length from two to six pages, as they meet in New Orleans, according to Alabama Bishop Henry N. Parsley.

Parsley chairs the House of Bishops Theology Committee, which released the 15-page "Communion Matters: A Study Document for the Episcopal Church" on June 1. The study document is aimed at helping the bishops respond to the requests made to them by the Primates of the Anglican Communion.

The requests were made in a communiqué from the Primates at the end of their February meeting in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

The communiqué requests that the bishops make "an unequivocal common covenant" that they "will not authorize any Rite of Blessing for same-sex unions in their dioceses or through General Convention" and asks them to "confirm that the passing of Resolution B033 of the 75th General Convention means that a candidate for episcopal orders living in a same-sex union shall not receive the necessary consent; unless some new consensus on these matters emerges across the Communion."

The communiqué asks Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori to relay the House of Bishops' response by September 30.

It is expected that the House of Bishops will make a response during its September 20-25 normal fall meeting, to be held this year in New Orleans. The meeting will include, on September 20 and 21, private conversation with the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The bishops have already responded to a portion of the communiqué. In three "Mind of the House" resolutions passed during their March meeting, the bishops said, in part, that the Primates' proposed "pastoral scheme" for dealing with disaffected Episcopal Church dioceses "would be injurious to The Episcopal Church." The bishops urged that the Executive Council "decline to participate in it," which it did in June.
The preface of "Communion Matters" said the committee offered the document "as a contribution to the discernment of this church as we seek the mind of Christ and endeavor to be faithful to our calling as members of the Anglican family in the world." The preface says that the guide aimed to be a summary, not an exhaustive history. It includes three chapters of information, a set of questions for reflection and resources for more background.
"I am deeply aware that bishops are very busy people and to add one more thing to a bishop's schedule is difficult but, I will say this opportunity to have high level conversation with our people, I think, is tremendously important for bishops and this was an attempt to facilitate that," Parsley said. "Bishops can live in an echo chamber where all we hear is our own voice."

Parsley said he assumes that other bishops and dioceses used the document but did not report back. The timing of the study guide's release, coming just before summer and many clergy's sabbatical season, may have influenced the results, he added.

Use, responses were varied
According to Parsley and a random search of diocesan websites, "Communion Matters" was used in a number of ways. It was read and discussed by standing committees, diocesan councils, clergy, congregations, and other small groups of Episcopalians as well as in wider diocesan conversations. Some bishops have posted summaries of their efforts and the responses on diocesan websites.

"I want to be careful to not say too much about the content until the bishops have had the chance to read it," Parsley said.

However, he said that he sensed "people did talk about the value of the communion, what's important about being part of the communion."

"Across the board, all of them say the communion is enormously valuable to them for all kinds of reasons: shared ministry, catholicity, our Christian heritage, the apostolic succession and the English episcopate, diocesan companionships, multicultural diversity, all sorts of things," he said.

"People [are] saying that one of the great gifts we have is that our tradition gives us a way to be different and yet share one table; to have diversity of views but worship together in the spirit of the Elizabethan Settlement [which] has given us a commitment to breadth and inclusivity, and unity in diversity that is a wonderful theme in our heritage," Parsley said. "That seemed to resonate with people."

Some concern was expressed about "how we better can work together and still preserve our individual integrities," Parsley said, and "about the careful, careful balance in Anglicanism of integrity of each province as an autonomous church, but in tension with that the need to be inter-dependent, to consult, to work together on important issues with other Anglicans, but not to surrender our own individual churches' integrities and particular unique context and views about mission."

Included in those concerns, Parsley said, was discussion about whether the House of Bishops should respond to the communiqué or whether an official response must come from the Executive Council or the General Convention.

"Clearly there are people that think that the 'Communion Matters' document didn't call for enough repentance or contrition on the part of the Episcopal Church," he said. "I don't think it was designed to do that, but people said that in some cases. Some feel strongly that we need to change our course and repent for what we've done; others feel strongly we need to maintain and stay our course."

Parsley said he has sent the bishops all of the responses he has received without comment.

Dioceses discuss guide in differing ways
In his own diocese, Parsley said, between 500 and 600 people, including clergy groups, four convocational gatherings, the Standing Committee and Diocesan Council discussed the document and considered its reflection questions.

In the Diocese of Vermont, Bishop Thomas Ely hosted six "Communion Matters" conversations which he said were attended by close to 225 people from more than 30 congregations.

"Communion Matters conversations here in Vermont were marked by a spirit of respectful listening and sharing of information, ideas, concerns, hopes and fears," Ely wrote in his column for the Mountain Echo, the monthly diocesan newspaper.

He reported that others talked with him privately, especially those whom he said felt uncomfortable expressing their opinion in a large group, and others emailed him.

"What I take away from them and what I take with me to New Orleans is the clear desire of the members of our diocese to remain as part of the Anglican Communion family, while at the same time continuing to welcome, celebrate and cherish the presence and ministry of all members of our diocese -- our gay and lesbian members as well as our members who disagree with many of the recent actions of the General Convention," Ely wrote. "I heard much in these conversations about justice, acceptance, tolerance, respect, living with tension, waiting in the moment, not rushing to judgment, betrayal, fear, ‘scapegoating,' unity, diversity, certainty, ambiguity, hope and confidence in God."

He wrote that none of the problems were solved, "but maybe -- just maybe -- like those disciples on the road to Emmaus we now see the whole picture a little more clearly."

Three evening discussions were held in late July in the Diocese of Easton, Bishop James Shand said. A summary of the responses to most of the document's reflection questions is posted here.
"We saw how far we had grown in grace since General Convention 2003. Perhaps that's why so many commented that patience and respectful listening are essential," wrote Shand and the Rev. Canon Heather Cook. "It seems that at least some of our differences spring from a basic human way of looking at life, and how we order the information we take in. Some come from a perspective of absolute standards, following the rules, seeing an unbending right or wrong, black or white. Others come from a perspective of relationship, living comfortably with the grey areas, able to compromise for the sake of the other."

In the Diocese of Tennessee, Bishop John
C. Bauerschmidt appointed a small committee to develop a process for responding to "Communion Matters." The committee developed three questions for congregations to answer, including two about how Bauerschmidt ought to respond to the Primates' requirements about same-gender blessings and not electing or consenting to gay, partnered bishops. The last question dealt with maintaining communion in the diocese.

A summary of the process and responses noted that most of the statements received from congregations "responded to the issue of human sexuality rather than to the study's core question of the nature of communion among Anglican provinces."

In a nearly six-page report to the theology committee, Northern California Bishop Barry Beisner said the responses from about a third of the diocese -- which he summarizes -- show that there are "deep divisions represented here."

"These responses came to me with many powerful emotions attached: anguish, anger, grief, impatience, and fear -- but also confidence, love, trust, and hope," he wrote. "In every conversation, I observed a desire on very nearly everyone's part to hold all in baptismal regard, as part of a passionate concern to stay together. I take that as direct evidence that the Holy Spirit is indeed working among us, and I expect that the Spirit will help us find our way." 

Beisner's summary is available via a link on the diocese's website here.

"Communion Matters" is available online in a color PDF version here and in black-and-white here.

-- The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is national correspondent for the Episcopal News Service.

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